I am honoured to have written another guest post for the Abbey of the Arts, which was published yesterday:
As a contemplative photographer I thought I knew quite a bit about light and brightness, shadow and darkness. It appears I was wrong. During 2020 and 2021 a series of COVID-19 ‘Lockdowns’ have been offering me a unique opportunity to maintain a watch on the seasonal cycles of light across my bedroom walls. I have wanted to do this ever since, back in 2013-4, our online Abbess Christine [Valters-Paintner] introduced me to the Celtic rituals surrounding the ‘cross-quarter days’ which divide the weeks between the seasonal equinoxes and solstices. And so, from Beltaine 2020 (1 May) to Beltaine 2021, I have watched and marked, photographed and written about how light changes what and how I see; how watching light changes the light in me.
Yet, as we all know, 2020-21 has been a deeply odd year (to put it mildly). I have spent the vast majority of the year shielding with my parents, and as someone who struggles with chronic illness, I have spent most of it living a predominantly bed-based life. So there has been little seasonal variation in my habits and virtually no seasonal variation in the state of my health. The constant tussle I have with clinical depression has continued, as have the seizure symptoms of the Functional Neurological Disorder I live with. I have left the house only a handful of times, with trips to the doctor and hospital predominating. So I’ve not seen much of the outside world.
But then, over the last year, unless we have been a precious key-worker undergoing the relentless pressure of a physically and emotionally demanding workload, haven’t the vast majority of us seen more of the inside walls of our homes than we would normally? Whether we’ve welcomed it or hated it, this period has brought a step-change of pace, with all the attendant anxieties that such changes might pose. There are as many ways as there are reasons by which minute seasonal changes of light might have continued to pass me by in the last year, but by grace I was able to continue the long, slow, frustrating art of learning to detach myself enough from the zeitgeist of communal anxiety creeping under my bedroom door with every news bulletin; to put a brake on the hamster-wheel of my own pain-filled preoccupations; and stop long enough to look, record, remember and dream about how I feel about light in every time and season.
This fresh appreciation for the direction and intensity of light falling across the walls and windows of the room I stay in at my parents’ house is encouraging me to finish the book I have been writing since the winter of 2014/15. That year, with the help of a couple of the Abbey’s online retreats, I discovered a framework that helped me put years of chronic illness into a more present perspective. I have been exploring this ever since, in one way or another, on my blogs shot at ten paces and image into ikon, and my book Walls, Wounds and Wonders will be the result of extended reflection in word and image on a fourth-century monastic encounter in the Egyptian desert:
A brother came to Scetis to visit Abba Moses and asked him “Father, give me a word.” The old man said to him “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
Over the course of the last seven years I have spent months based in bed in one room, and I realised there was an opportunity here: what did these walls, in this ‘cell’, have to teach me?
The resulting richness has meant I have a very long first draft to edit, but the abundance this extended gratitude practice continues to bring me is beyond comprehension or explanation. I have realised these walls are pure Gift, pure Grace.
For example, these walls have provided a Sanctuary, where I can rest under large windows which have become battened-down prayers against cold winds, or thrown-open rejoicings as I listen to buzzards circle the thermals by day and owls haunt the fields by night. They have provided a Library, a hushed space where I can study, read and write when concentration allows. They have provided a Refectory, where friends can pull up a chair beside my bed and we can share a pot of tea, laugh and weep together. They have provided a Studio on the days I can sit upright and doodle with watercolour paints, pens and pencils, or collage ripped-up bits of paper. And they have provided me with a Light-Laboratory, so that on days where my vision can bear it, I can grab my iPhone and experiment, waiting to receive an image I might make part of my Facebook project acts of daily seeing.
Learning that everything which could possibly be vital for my flourishing is encapsulated within one room is such a humbling lesson. It is one I have to relearn at least once daily, particularly when the urge to accumulate, to hoard, to click and consume books or art materials overcomes me. This year’s focus of attention on the infinite variety that is light, has begun to train me to seek the antidote to such self-centredness in sky-watching, whenever my vision allows and wherever possible; breathing deeply, basking in the glory and the grace freely given for our delight and inspiration; offering up my inadequate songs of thanksgiving in response.
One year on from my decision to trace the course of light through the natural seasons by intentionally marking the solstices, equinoxes and cross-quarter days. What strands can I pull free from all I have written about these pinnacle points of this year’s light so I can embed them into my becoming? Trace the colours:
At Beltaine, fresh lime, pea and peridot greens emerged under pale, finespun gold; strengthened into curling petals of mauve and lavender, a froth of white and cream at the Summer Solstice; fruited as tongues of ruby, vermillion, scarlet, fuschia pinks and reds at Lughnasa; flourished into burnished saffron and golden ochre at the Autumn Equinox; faded into dove grey, taupe and charcoal by Samhain; folded into midwinter’s depths of blueblack and indigo at the Winter Solstice; re-emerging as pewter, sepia and khaki by Imbolc; then as the number of hours of daylight reaches its’ crucial moment, an acid, chrome and orpiment yellow blaze of resurrection promise is released after the Spring Equinox. Height and angle, brightness and dimness, the endless balancing game between blue and yellow, between cold and heat: the hues and tones of every colour are mixed on the palette of light into infinite variety, year-in, year-out. This light continues even through the perpetual challenge of the physical and emotional ‘grey days’, the seeming endless blank of depression, a fog that threatens to overwhelm all memory of how things might be different: and yet it never quite eliminates the hope that this spiral of emerging colours, under the year’s changing arc of light, has imprinted the eternal in me.
And through it all comes the twist of fire to bind or loose, to distil or destroy, to dance with or lament through: the urgent wonder of turning aside to watch the burning bush and notice the whisper of Invitation, as encapsulated by Abba Moses in the desert: ‘why not become fire’? Why not let the fire of God burn through you? Why not let the fire of God reveal your essence? Why not let the fire of God light you up as beacon, as warning, as prophecy, as celebration, as companion, as guide, as protection, as succour, as lover, as … ? Fire’s trail reminds me to love the light in all its guises; it releases me to be passionate about loving colour and light in mind and body, heart and soul.
In the book of Isaiah, the I AM says, countless times: ’Now I Am revealing’… How do I notice the I AM? How do I notice the I AM in my now? Do I even notice the present tense of the I AM? What I AM light am I taking for granted today? Am I not seeing how the early morning snow, under heavy slate skies, became sparkling drips dropping from tree limbs, as mid-morning sun lit only the very extremities, the swelling tips of branches; how light-grey clouds suddenly massed and masked the differences between the clean windowsill and dusty cupboard top; how such heavy flatness became pierced through by midday glowings, fleeting and uncertain, highlighting the furze of greening birch trees on the hill at one moment, collapsing them into umber shadow the next? If I had not looked up – and out – a few times in the past few hours I would have missed all this plenitude.
Such sky-watching is possible at most moments, in most times, as I sit up in bed, unless the very thing I treasure as a contemplative photographer, my sensitivity to the I AM-light, becomes the condition I need to protect myself against (on those days I have to pull down black-out blinds to nurse a migraine or pull curtains to allow a weakened, weary body lie down quietly in the semi-dark and rest).
Such sky-watching has become the antidote to my self-entered preoccupations and the hamster-wheel of my ruminating mind. It immediately allows me to focus on the wonder of our created earth, and the abundance of minute details that Sophia dances before my eyes to demonstrate, time and again, that I am not alone; that the eternal I AM is present in all my details, if I have eyes to see.
Such sky-watching is also the corrective to my craving to see change. I am impatient for my healing from the chronic functional neurological disorder which has affected me for the past thirty years. I am desperate to see a permanent break in my cycles of clinical depression. I am longing to alter the patterns of self-sabotage and lack of self-compassion which dictate how I use (and fail to refuel) my precious, fragile energy source. I am incredibly fortunate to have a gifted counsellor and beloved friends who reflect back how my healing is happening, but If I ever need a cosmic reminder that change is happening I need only look out the window, and then look back into my mundane habitat with renewed vision.
Such sky-watching confirms in me my hunch that healing is about wholeness, not wellness. There may be little variation in the physical symptoms of my condition from one year to the next, but how I deal with those symptoms, how I understand and articulate my feelings about them, how they colour my relationship with my Source, is open to infinite shifts and adjustments, and will in turn, affect how I interact with the people and world around me.
Such sky-watching has become intricately linked with my determination to turn away from living a fear-filled life, to embodying a creativity-filled life, even if – especially if – most days I don’t leave my bed for more than an hour or two.
This too then, is what this year has brought me: a reconnection to the bedrock need for gratitude as a transforming force in my life. Sky-watching fills me with the wonder of a life based on abundance, not on lack. So there is plenty of material into which I can go ‘mining for gold’ as I have written about several times over the course of this last year. Sky-watching encourages my feeble faith to believe that there is always, always, a wonder for me to see, inside and outside of myself, if I will but continue to follow the path of Light, the one the God of Holy Surprises lays down before me, through every twist and turn.
for these gardens for which we have been given the vision
for creating, for nurturing
in the endless cycles of the seasons,
heaven nodding in affirmation.
Ana Lisa de Jong
Living Tree Poetry, March 2021
I feel in a funny-old place, very in-between things and unsettled. Uncomfortable in my skin. Exhausted. Depleted. And I am out of step – the world around me is about to open up again – more than one set of Covid-19 restrictions being lifted, coinciding neatly within the orbit of vernal equinox, and new life breaking through and budding from the earth beneath my window. Must I really drag the bottom of my murky pool to find the energy to fuel a ‘spring forth’?
This year, I sense it can’t be done.
Yet aren’t I often, nearly always, out of step with the rhythms of the world around me, living quietly as I do, in a mostly bed-orientated existence, normally (pre-Covid) spending much of my time alone? My daily rhythms and routines are dependent on that day’s allowance of energy, so often I have to let go of whatever I might have hoped to accomplish, or planned to do, whether it was studio time, a medical appointment, or sitting with a friend. And for a recovering perfectionist like me, it is incredibly difficult to ‘keep at’ what will no-doubt be a life-long task: the soul-work of finding a balance between desire and acceptance, the heart-work of being silent and at rest, balanced against creative action without striving.
As I continue this journey of marking each Equinox, Solstice and Cross-Quarter over the course of a single year, (begun in May 2020), watching the growing and waning strength of light change the colours of familiar objects around me, I wonder how this perception of light might help me listen to my empty, desolate, tired places within – the wilderness places, the desert places; to listen, with renewed attention, but without force. Perhaps I need to keep watching Winter’s shadows a little longer? Is it possible for someone who longs to be up and making, to find the patience to lie fallow a little longer?
And I have to laugh at myself as I write that sentence, because what on earth do I mean by ‘fallow’? As I mentioned at Imbolc, during January and February it has been my huge privilege to be part of a community delving into an exploration of ‘A MidWinter God’ (with the Abbey of the Arts). This course brought the key concept of being ‘fallow’ to my attention, and it is a word that keeps returning to me. For example, one evening last week, at the end of what I was bemoaning to myself as a ‘fallow’ day (read ‘unproductive’ which is not the same thing at all!), I brought myself up short, stopped the internal whine and made a list of what I had done during that day between 9 am and 7.15pm. It read as follows (in no particular order):
making an iPad painting of my discerning of ‘grief as a holy path’
writing an extended prayer meditation
typing up and sharing both of these with fellow pilgrims on ‘MidWinter God’ site
30 minutes painting new canvas – including standing and stretching
cleaning brushes and palette on diary covers/ playing cards (as part of other projects/new beginnings)
rest: lying down and watching sky for a while
ink pen doodling letter X for illustrated alphabet project
engaging in an extended WhatsApp text exchange (lying down)
watching 3 minute FaceBook video (lying down)
eating supper with my parents (wheelchair to kitchen and back)
having a 20 minute drink & conversation with Dad before supper
listening to the first two songs of a NineBarrow concert with my parents
rest: reading Barbara Brown Taylor and Paolo Coehlo concentratedly for 40 mins (lying down)
rest: reading Georgette Heyer mindlessly on and off for 2 hours (lying down).
By anyone’s measure, this day cannot be called inactive – or restful – or ‘fallow’; and this kind of evidence list is a very necessary therapy for me from time to time, helping me confront my inner perfectionist and inner ungrateful-wretch head on.
So how do I really learn to clear a space, to simplify, to listen to the sentence I just wrote rather than begin a new one? Since last summer my therapist has been urging me to finish some of the multiple creative projects I have on the go. Together we have noted, with compassion and affection, that my ‘genius’ for overcomplicating is related to my persistent habit of having a hundred creative ideas before breakfast. My sadness, my abiding sin perhaps you might call it, is that I carry this habit over into my spiritual life, always dipping into multiple sources throughout my morning’s ‘quiet’ time, thereby receiving multiple messages, multiple inspirations, multiple everything. Is it any wonder I struggle with brain fog? Is it any wonder I get overwhelmed by details? Is it any wonder there are days I just do not know where to start? Perhaps all this multiplying is part of a desperate subconscious assault on the brain: if I blast my system with enough holy reading surely some of it might get through and stick?
In his book Spiritual Intelligence Brian Draper asks:
… often the most profound awakenings arise from being willing to let go of the ‘Where now?’ or ‘What next?’ questions. In fact, most of us need to let go profoundly before we take anything more on. … We must clear a space in order to hear the still, small voice speak to us. But we must also be prepared, within that act of space-clearing, for yet more clearing to take place – to discern what we first need to surrender before we can more on with a lighter load. The poet, priest and mystic John O’Donohue once wrote that we must ‘clear thickets in the undergrowth of banality in our life’ so that we can overhear our true self. We should first clear space in order to ask, ‘What more should I clear?’ (25)
Over the course of the last thirty years I feel that I have had to let go of so much, due to chronic illness. Some days the grief of those dashed hopes and unfulfilled dreams threatens to overwhelm me, and I wonder if this grief makes me subconsciously cling to my present desires like a safety raft, utterly resistant to the idea that they too might need to be cleared out the way. But I have begun to learn to recognise that I need to let go of these most tenacious desires, and that the only way to do it is in every moment of every day. Father Thomas Keating called these engrained desires our ‘emotional drivers’: the desire for power and control; the desire for safety and security; the desire for affection, affirmation and esteem; the desire to change circumstance, situations, other people and myself. Letting go of these ‘drivers’ is at the heart of Centering Prayer practice and most mornings for the last seven years I have prayed this prayer. Yet five minutes after I have prayed it, I catch myself repeating the desire I just prayed to release! In my case, the work of trying to overhear my True Self that Draper and O’Donohue point to, is a very halting process of trying to recognise where my ‘attachments’ and desires are leading me off into a cul-de-sac, away from the Way of God’s healing and flourishing. And once I have finally noticed I have sabotaged myself again? All I can do is sigh, smile at myself, and begin again, surrendering to the Winter hard work of trying to clear the brambles of myself out of the way, so I might have enough clarity to see the GodLight springing forth.
Yet it has been my experience that clearing the ground, clearing space, surrendering all my so-called ‘good ideas’ and my ‘purple prose’, has often meant I have exposed huge, gaping emotional chasms, uncovered an echoing, empty, arid desert within me, and felt the keen edge of the wind whistle God’s absence from these places within me. Lent is often the time to remember the rich traditions of Desert Spirituality: to reflect on wilderness – where one might uncover thickets with brambles so densely-packed it feels you might never escape – as well as on open, unpopulated or barren places, or perhaps, on dark places or on blinding-light places.
One of the most illuminating books I’ve read in the past year has been Belden C. Lane’s, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality. Lane repeatedly reminded me:
The desert is, preeminently, a place to die. Anyone retreating to an Egyptian or Judean monastery, hoping to escape the tensions of city life, found little comfort among the likes of an [Abba] Anthony or Sabas. The desert offered no private therapeutic place for solace and rejuvenation. One was as likely to be carried out feet first as to be restored unchanged to the life one had left. … Amma Syncletica refused to let anyone deceive herself by imagining that retreat to a desert monastery meant the guarantee of freedom from the world. The hardest world to leave, she knew, is the one within the heart. (165, 168)
As for his own heart, Lane declares, “All I bring to the darkness each night is what the Cloud [of Unknowing] author calls a “naked intent”, a wish to be empty and still in the presence of ‘that for which I have no name’, a practice of trying to find ‘that time of utterly thoughtless silence’. ” (146) I know that longing for thought-less-ness well (although I also know the very different extreme experience of true terror, when it feels like the brain freezes, and words flee in such a way as one is no longer able to communicate freely). Thomas Merton wrote of his own heart’s desire:
to deliver oneself up, to hand oneself over, entrust oneself completely to the silence of a wide landscape of woods and hills, or sea, or desert; to sit still while the sun comes up over that land and fills its silences with light. To pray and work in the morning and to labour and rest in the afternoon, and to sit still again in meditation in the evening when night falls upon that land and when the silence fills itself with darkness and with stars.
Rest. Stillness. Silence. Surrender. Emptiness. Fullness. Openness. Attention. These words are my keystones, words where my spirit encounters the Holy and beholds the I AM. These words pepper my journey with, and through, light. They are found across history, across faith traditions and religions, across the globe. Another exponent of the “naked intent” school of spirituality was the the thirteenth-century German mystic poet Mechthild of Magdeburg. She wrote:
In the desert,
Turn toward emptiness,
Fleeing the self.
Ask no one’s help,
And your being will quiet,
Free from the bondage of things.
Those who cling to the world,
endeavour to free them;
Those who are free, praise.
Care for the sick,
But live alone,
Happy to Drink from the waters of sorrow,
To kindle Love’s fire
With the twigs of a simple life.
Thus you will live in the desert.
‘The desert has many teachings’
Mechthild of Magdeburg
During this year of global pandemic many of us may have felt aloneness in a keener way, may have needed to care for the sick in a more particular way, may have experienced the extremes of happiness and sorrow. There will be few who have not at some point found humanity’s view of our mortality and our vitality brought into question. And the questions continue on into our uncertain personal and communal futures. So here again, on another turning point along this journey of light across the year, I will light a festive fire, that way of marking the Celtic pillars of the year; and, unsettled, empty, exhausted though I may be, by faith I will mark my surrender to the One who ushers possibility from uncertainty, by rekindling my fire of Love within by this prayer:
May I clear space for You, so that I might see what or where I need to simplify in this day, this season, this year.
May my life become a song of praise and gratitude to the One who greets my emptiness with the blessings of plenitude and abundance.
May I learn to be content to lie fallow, to rest, to be still, to know the I AM in silence and in song.
May I be given the courage to begin again, or to surge on, whenever Your light changes within, whenever you give me Your vision.
May I follow the Light of Love all the days of my life to come.
Then, the Lord heard me in the wilderness of my soul.
Then, the lost place of me became clear.
Then, I recognised distraction for what it is.
Then, I was freed from the desert of diversion.
Then, I was moved to the green oasis within me.
Then, the still voice of the Lord was as the depth of water. Then, I could cease the constant music in my head.
Then, I could move beyond myself and the noise of myself. Then, I could hear the smallness of my own voice.
Then, the still voice of the Lord was as the depth of water. Then, the lost place of me became clear as a cascade.
Then, I could hear the bass of my name.
Then, I heard the Lord in the wilderness of my soul.
Then, stillness and stillness and stillness sang.
‘The Psalm of Then’
Nicholas Samaras, from American Psalm, World Psalm
If Candlemas Day be fair and bright Winter will have another fight. If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain, Winter won’t come again.
It has been a very grey January outside my window, and I although I resist turning on a light as soon as I wake up in the morning then leaving it on all day beside my bed, there have been some days where the daylight grey has rendered it impossible to read, even at midday, without the imposition of electricity. I hear my anger rage at the blankness of a filled-in sky driving me to consume earth’s precious resources. I catch sight of my disappointment when it feels like it has rained every day for six weeks and I have not seen the sun. I surprise myself with the resentment I feel when putting on a light, and its reminder of my dis-ease with shadows and penumbra inside and outside of myself; and of my reaching for easy hope, a quick fix, rushing to push past any grief, refusing to look at the hurts, declining the opportunity to ‘sit with’ the uncomfortable.
I note all this resistance in me as I continue to watch the light’s fall across the second half of my year’s exploration of the equinoxes, solstices, and the Celtic practices that surround the celebration of the ‘cross-quarter’ days marking the midpoints in between.
February 1st/2nd/3rd offers up multiple gifts to this season of grey: the Feast Day of St Brigid; Candlemas (the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ, the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Feast of the Holy Encounter); the Celtic festival of Imbolc; and lastly, the Saints day of Simeon and Anna. All four are intimately connected.
In 2015 I wrote a piece for the Godspace blog on Saint Brigid and her primary work as healer. She is known as the saint of birthing mothers, and her Feast traditionally marked the beginning of Spring. Named after Brig, the Celtic Goddess of Fire, she became the ‘bridge’ between Celtic and Christian communities in Ireland. Fire is also an important element of Candlemas, since as the name suggests, it was the day all the church candles were blessed. It is a Church feast day intimately connected with Mary, the mother of Jesus, as it celebrates her ritual cleansing and re-entry into the public life of the Jewish Temple, as well as the formal service of presentation of her baby to the priests and Temple congregation. There feels like so much richness to explore in this ‘co-incidence’ between the coming of light out of darkness and the celebration of the sacred feminine. As at so many other Celtic ritual occasions, fire marks Imbolc as the festival of Light. Lastly, light is central to the rituals enacted around the Feast Day of Simeon and Anna, the elder and the prophetess who witnessed the child Jesus’s entry into Temple life, who are known for recognising, articulating and proclaiming this Jesus as the bringer of Light in the Darkness, that fulfilment of the Old Testament’s promise of a Messiah (Luke 2.22-40).
Imbolc, meaning ‘in the belly’, brings an invitation to allow my body to be a vital guide for this ‘dark’ half of the Celtic year; it invites me to express both the dark and the light, the winter and the spring, through my body. The quality of light from November to February has a felt impact on my body, my mind and my spirit. My seeing is transfigured because of light’s blankness and flatness on grey days, and its low, acute, blinding angles on days where clear winter bright light appears. Yet discerning what ‘wisdom of the gut’ my body is trying to direct me towards, is something I find much harder to see. What in me needs ritual cleansing perhaps? What in me needs celebrating? What in me needs proclaiming?
All I know is that the very fallowness of winter is an invitation to rest in what I do not know. In this rest there is a paradoxical urgency which I must heed, before I make any habitual mad dash towards spring and all the symbols of hope offered by that season. For there is hope to be found in the stripped back, stark skeletons of winter, where what is spare and sparse is what is revealed to be beautiful, if I have eyes to see. In this season, there may be years where the seed has already been planted deep underground, and is already growing, unseen and unfelt, in the dark. Yet, this season also offers the possibility of jubilee, a year where the earth is not forced to be productive, where the year offers the possibility of restoration and restitution to the land, and all those who might glean from its dark riches.
This too is the eternal truth at the heart of the Feast of the Holy Encounter. Simeon the elder names the Christ-child as a light for revelation. Yet this light does not have the quickly graspable qualities of hope, or the glory of what Barbara Brown Taylor calls ‘solar Christianity’. Simeon prophesies that the Messiah is ‘a sign that will be opposed … so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed’ (Luke 2.34-5 NRSV) or as The Message translates this verse:
This child marks both the failure and
the recovery of many in Israel,
A figure misunderstood and contradicted—
the pain of a sword-thrust through you—
But the rejection will force honesty,
as God reveals who they really are.
I am stunned to realise that God is working with my default behaviour, my defensiveness, my stubborn rejections, my negative reaction to whatever God may be unfolding if it involves undergoing any kind of pain or discomfort. Further, I am staggered that it is not the fact of the Christ’s existence which is to be the revelation; he is the revealer, yes, but it is we who are to be the revelation: our innermost thoughts are, our True Selves are. And this unveiling will happen through misunderstandings, through contradictions, defensive rejections, and hurts: in other words the holy is hiding amidst all my shadow places … amongst all the tones of grey … amongst all the dark middle miles of my intestines, ‘in the belly’ of all the places I do not want to look.
Behold, grey might be a vehicle for revelation as much as any other colour. Grey can be a Christ-carrier in even its most unappealing state: it does not have to be pierced through or burned off or diluted, it is holy as it is, and it can bring ‘recovery’.
So the wisdom my gut offers me this year is that the beginning of February is a smorgasbord feast full of multiple offerings and opportunities for a holy encounter, for an #epiphanyoftheordinary to be released through the tiny flame of the candle before me. What waits to be revealed as holy is already redeemed, that fire is already lit within me, if I will only open my eyes, heart and gut to receive the vision and be wholed.
So let the holy encounter with the very belly of winter begin.
The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated.
Terry Tempest Williams
I wonder if I can help ‘heal the world through joy’ as Terry Tempest Williams suggests? Epiphany is the winter season to allow my heart to do a lot of this wondering, pondering, chewing over, meditating. It is a turning-of-the-deep-soul-soil time.
As I look back over the Advent series I have just written, and try to fathom how to continue as a JoyPilgrim in 2021 in the midst of the continued uncertainty a worldwide pandemic has brought home to us all in the last year, I come back to a reminder from Victoria Finlay: colour is a happening, a doing, a verb, not a series of naming nouns (adventapertures2020: day three). I constantly need to remember that I, along with the world about me, is in constant, trembling transition. This is a daunting, unsettling, unmooring type of knowledge; but it is also a hopeful one, for it allows me to quiver in excited anticipation at the opportunities given for redemption and renewal: within me, with others, within the Earth, across the globe.
My Mum pointed me in the direction of another corrective to the idea of colour vision ever being fixed, through an article about the way that birds see colour: through four-dimensional light vision. Literally, I cannot compute this type colour vision. Birds “have this depth of richness that we can’t begin to imagine,” says Richard Prum, of the University of Kansas. “When my ornithology students ask ‘What does this color look like to a bird?’ I have to answer, ‘You will never know, you cannot know.’ It’s like asking what the music of bats sounds like.”
What a source of endless fascination and wonder-filled mystery that sentence is!
In the same article, John Endler, of the University of California, who studies how guppy fish perceive colour, (which changes within different environments), expands on how this UV signalling works for all animals:
The relative intensity of UV wavelengths versus longer wavelengths varies dramatically across different contexts. Ultraviolet light is relatively strong at dawn and dusk, when the sun’s low angle allows the atmosphere to absorb longer wavelengths and scatter shorter ones. Open, less vegetated habitats are richer in UV light because vegetation absorbs UV. Snow and ice reflect UV, whereas liquid water absorbs and transmits it. On cloudy days, UV’s relative intensity increases, and UV is stronger at higher altitudes due to the thinner atmosphere. Other factors include everything from latitude, season, and lunar phase to the reflectance of different rock types at the micro-site scale.
It makes sense to my (admittedly very unscientific) brain that not only do I as a human not have the ability to see the full range of colours dancing in the universe, that even if I did have the range, what I might want to name as a ‘colour’ would constantly be affected by the UV light playing off its’ shifting, shimmering surroundings. This is such a cause of creative wonder to me. It is also a very humbling reminder that God’s creative vision is infinitely wider, deeper, longer, than mine; and that I do not need to know all the things under heaven. In fact for me, Epiphany is often the season of unknowing, of entering into Mystery, rather than a blinding flash of wisdom suddenly transforming my understanding. And if I have learnt one thing over the past forty days of being a JoyPilgrim, it is that while joy as an emotion is often illusory in my life, Joy as a presence can be cultivated.
I found help for exercising my ‘rejoicing muscles’ in Christine Aroney-Sine’s book The Gift of Wonder: Creative Practices for delighting in God. She curates a journalling exercise adapted from the prayer of examen, a contemplative practice created by Ignatius of Loyola in the sixteenth century, ‘to examine our days, detect God’s presence, and discern God’s purposes’:
Write “I choose joy” on the first blank page …
Each night for the next week prayerfully think back over your day.
What did you enjoy doing?
What made you smile, laugh, dance, or shout out loud for joy today?
How did you respond to these joyful moments?
… Imagine God entering into your joy.
In what ways did these joyful moments make you sense God’s pleasure and draw you closer to God?
In what ways did they draw you closer to others?
What creative impulses or responses did they stir within you?
What could you do tomorrow to cultivate and grow that joy?
Name the tensions.
What destroyed your joy today and made you feel distant from God?
What distanced you from others and perhaps destroyed their joy?
What adjustments could you make to overcome the tensions and restore your joy?
Each evening, reward your self for the creative responses that enhanced your joy. Give yourself a special treat for each tension that turned into a joy-filled moment where you sensed God’s pleasure … Laugh at yourself. Toast yourself for being a person who is able to overcome tension and create joy spots. As you laugh I hope that you will sense God’s approval of your contemplation.
At the end of the week take extra time to relax and look over your week.
What gave you the greatest joy?
What do you think gave the greatest pleasure to God?
What could you do this coming week to expand your own joy and the pleasure you brought to God? (133)
The idea that God might delight in me shocked me, so conditioned am I to feel myself perpetually falling short of some invisible standard of perfection that will never yield the approval I crave. Believing the default lie of perfectionism that ‘I am not (and never can be) enough’ to God (or anyone else for that matter), is just one example of how I quench my joy, how continually I quench God’s joy both of me, and within me. As I continue intentionally exploring colour in all forms of my creative being and doing during 2021, as I stumble along as a JoyPilgrim, asking this simple question might be the most demanding Epiphany season: what can I do to increase my joy?
One of my favourite books of 2020 was Macrina Wiederkehr’s Seven Sacred Pauses, and she writes of Joy’s ‘persistence’:
Joy has the ability to live with and through the sorrows. Perhaps the reason for joy’s persistence is hidden in a definition of joy that comes to us from the novelist Eugenia Price. “Joy,” she says, “is God in the marrow of our bones.” Joy is a deep well. If, in times of sorrow, we go down under the sorrow, we will discover that joy is still alive. Thus we will be able to raise high the chalice of our lives in any kind of weather. (50)
Increasing my joy depends on nourishing the presence of this precious marrow – and learning how to do so in all seasons. May I learn in 2021 how to delight God by consciously learning how to receive the eternal gifts found in the colours each day brings, in all weathers, so that I might pour them in the chalice of my life, lifting high the One in me who is Joy-with-us.
When the light around you lessens
And your thoughts darken until
Your body feels fear turn
Cold as a stone inside,
When you find yourself bereft
Of any belief in yourself
And all you unknowingly
Leaned on has fallen,
When one voice commands
Your whole heart,
And it is raven dark,
Steady yourself and see
That it is your own thinking
That darkens your world.
Search and you will find
A diamond-thought of light,
Know that you are not alone,
And that this darkness has purpose;
Gradually it will school your eyes,
To find the one gift your life requires
Hidden within this night-corner.
Invoke the learning
Of every suffering
You have suffered.
Close your eyes.
Gather all the kindling
About your heart
To create one spark
That is all you need
To nourish the flame
That will cleanse the dark
Of its weight of festered fear.
A new confidence will come alive
To urge you towards higher ground
Where your imagination
will learn to engage difficulty
As its most rewarding threshold!
John O’Donohue, from Benedictus/To Bless the Space Between Us
Early, walk it back when the day goes dim, everyone
Rising just to find a way toward rest again.
We work, start on one side of the day
Like a planet’s only sun, our eyes straight
Until the flame sinks. The flame sinks. Thank God
I’m different. I’ve figured and counted. I’m not crossing
To cross back. I’m set
On something vast. It reaches
Long as the sea. I’m more than a conqueror, bigger
Than bravery. I don’t march. I’m the one who leaps.
From The Tradition, Jericho Brown.
I am coming late to the cultural phenomenon who is Marie Kondo, and her KonMari method for decluttering one’s life, so I was surprised to discover that her central tenet is the question: does it bring you joy? Nataly Kogan tried it out:
Does it bring you joy? … If you answer yes, you keep the item. If you hesitate or say no, you donate it or throw it out. It’s simple, it’s brilliant, and it’s something that’s completely intuitive. You can spend a lot of time justifying how something might at some point be useful to you and therefore decide to keep it, but whether something brings you joy is an emotional question and one that can be answered almost instantly: If you feel joy or if you don’t feel joy: there’s no need to make it more complicated than that…
1. Joy is simple yet powerful. …I found the decision process itself really easy: Joy is a simple filter we can apply to a lot of things, beyond clothes or stuff. We know it when we feel it, it’s strong and vibrant, and it can be a really great lens through which to view other life-choices.
2. There are different ways to bring joy. … Perhaps the dress brought you joy when you bought it and at that moment you felt the thrill of the shopping-hunt and thinking about ways you were going to wear it. If so, Kondo says, that’s great — that item of clothing has served its purpose: it brought you joy at some point. Now you can remember that and put it into the donation pile without guilt.
3. We don’t hang on to things; we hang on to emotions attached to those things.
… Those jeans remind me of that time, of what I was feeling then, and I realized that while I’d probably never wear them again I’d kept them in an attempt to hang on to those emotions I’d connected them to. The jeans were just jeans; but the emotions they’d elicited were what I was hanging on to. When I put them in the donation pile on my floor, I felt a huge sense of freedom and relief — giving away a pair of pants was a way to let go of feelings I no longer needed carry with me.
4. Fewer things you love is better than many things you kinda like.
… here’s what really surprised me: When I was done decluttering I didn’t want to run out and shop for new clothes. I had less than before — I estimate that I donated about a quarter of all my clothes and shoes — but I was so much happier with what I now had that I lacked that familiar desire to chase something new. What an unexpected benefit and a huge lesson.
5. It’s not about what others think.
.. when it comes to joy — about what you’re wearing, or what you’re eating, or what you’re doing with your life — you have to feel it yourself. If you don’t, it doesn’t much matter what others think: their joy is not a substitute for your own.
I find it fascinating that Marie Kondo is trying to ‘spark joy’ (to use her phrase). And whilst thinking about tidying up my material belongings might be tempting, especially at this turning of leaves time that is a New Year, to how much more of my life might this JoyPilgrim need to apply this intention? For sparking joy needs to become my way of life, my way of thinking, my way of creating, my way of praying, my way of serving …
At this midnight hour, during the watches of this long night, on the threshold between the years, I pray for the grace to spark joy in others in the coming times. However I may feel, whatever may occur, may I become a JoySpark; embodying sacred Joy as many times as I can, in as many places as I can, in as many ways as I can. May the transmission of this JoySpark always be a blessing bursting forth, pointing up and out, in and down, to where the Holy waits for us.
O Colors of Earth, anoint me and robe me with all the attributes I need for my life work: purple for wisdom, meditation, transformation and spirituality; red for passion, energy and courage; blues and greens for calm restfulness, balance, healing, hope, serenity, and contemplation; golden yellows for optimism and joy, lucidity, compassion and illumination, and orange for animation, creativity and enthusiasm; black and white for death and life, power and innocence, mysticism and truth.
May the Joy of the One who is All Colourful illuminate your colour in you this day, and in all your days to come.
Here, where the rivers dredge up the very stone of Heaven, we name its colors— muttonfat jade, kingfisher jade, jade of appleskin green.
And here, in the glittering hues of the Flemish Masters, we sample their wine; rest in their windows’ sun warmth, cross with pleasure their scrubbed tile floors. Everywhere the details leap like fish— bright shards of water out of water, facet cut, swift moving on the myriad bones.
Any woodthrush shows it— he sings, not to fill the world, but because he is filled.
But the world does not fill with us, it spills and spills, whirs with owl wings, rises, sets, stuns us with planet rings, stars. A carnival tent, a fluttering of banners.
O baker of yeast scented loaves, sword dancer, seamstress, weaver of shattering glass, O whirler of winds, boat swallower, germinant seed, O seasons that sing in our ears in the shape of O— we name your colors muttonfat, kingfisher, jade, we name your colors anthracite, orca, growth tip of pine, we name them arpeggio, pond, we name them flickering helix within the cell, burning coal tunnel, blossom of salt, we name them roof flashing copper, frost scent at morning, smoke singe of pearl, from black flowering to light flowering we praise them, from barest conception, the almost not thought of, to heaviest matter, we praise them, from glacier lit blue to the gold of iguana we praise them, and praising, begin to see, and seeing, begin to assemble the plain stones of earth.
‘The Stone of Heaven’
Jane Hirshfield, from The Lives of the Heart
As Rilke noted (quoted yesterday) rivers will bring our deepest sources of treasure into the daylight, because God ‘foregathers’ the brilliance we choose to ignore, the gold we never imagined existed within us. Jane Hirshfield (above) also points to the same movement of Spirit: ‘Here, where the rivers dredge up/ the very stone of Heaven, we name its colors’. Even when I have to ‘dredge’ the intention up from the depths of my shadowed places, such noticing and naming receives the gifts of God’s bounty, and responds in praise, in a bellow of gratitude, in a delight that ‘from black flowering to light flowering’ there is treasure to sustain me, if only I have eyes to see. This is the arc of the JoyPilgrimage I have been on this Advent, and Hirshfield’s hallelujah of colour seem to fit the moment where, once-again and for the first time, I celebrate the ‘breaking-in’ of the Cosmic Christ incarnate in my here and my now. As the poet John Milton wrote,
Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.
Reverence. Awe. Gratitude. These are the ingredients of the ‘everyday epiphanies’ of the God-with-us, that will transfigure me, heal me, if I will let them.
I experienced one such ‘epiphany of the ordinary’ when I came across an article written by Clive James on a phrase unknown to me until then, a ’feu de joie’:
The French expression feu de joie refers to a military celebration when all the riflemen of a regiment fire one shot after another, in close succession: ideally the sound should be continuous, like a drumroll … Symbolically, the fire of joy is a reminder that the regiment’s collective power relies on the individual, and vice versa. Imprinted on my mind, the succession of explosions became an evocation of the heritage of English poets and poetry, from Chaucer onwards. It still strikes me as a handy metaphor for the poetic succession, especially because, in the feu de joie, nobody got hurt. It was all noise: and noise, I believe, is the first and last thing that poetry is. If a poem doesn’t sound compelling, it won’t continue to exist … With a poem the most important thing is the way it sounds when you say it …
My understanding of what a poem is has been formed over a lifetime by the memory of the poems I love; the poems, or fragments of poems, that got into my head seemingly of their own volition, despite all the contriving powers of my natural idleness to keep them out. I discovered early on that a scrap of language can be like a tune in that respect: it gets into your head no matter what. In fact, I believe, that is the true mark of poetry: you remember it despite yourself. The Italians have a word for the store of poems you have in your head: a gazofilacio … a treasure chamber of the mind. The poems I remember are the milestones marking the journey of my life. And unlike paintings, sculptures or passages of great music, they do not outstrip the scope of memory, but are the actual thing, incarnate … The remarkable thing, I suppose, is not that I memorised a few poems, but that I never forgot them. Perhaps because the reward for success was freedom, I thought of poetry, forever afterwards, as my ticket out: the equivalent of hiding in the laundry in the truck out of the prison camp. When I am busy with the eternal task of memorising chunks of Milton, I can hear the sirens as I escape through the woods outside the wire of Stalag Luft III. For me, poetry means freedom. Even today, in fact especially today, when the ruins of my very body are the prison, poetry is my way through the wire and out into the world.
Such ‘everyday epiphanies’ are my personal route to freedom, both with and without a camera in my hand. A delight in language, even if my concentration and memory are too poor to retain its delicacies, brings untold riches to me each day. The world is full of fascinating people making interesting things out of their experiences. I am so grateful for the gift of sight, for the education I received so I can read, for the technology that connects me to a web of connections with others, for the trees that render me their matter so I can write and print and paint on blank pages.
Let my gratitude become a ‘feu de joie’.
May I become the embodiment of the Joyful Noise of Spirit pulsating in my very marrow.
May I embrace all the colours of the Colourful One.
May I join with other JoyPilgrims in creating the rope of Hope to extend to others we meet on our way, pulling each other out of the ‘slough of desponds’ we find ourselves imprisoned by at that moment.
May the Fire of Joy act as a reminder to me that our collective power relies on each individual releasing the jewels from her own gazofilacio, his treasure chamber of the heart, so she may be healed. May the Fire of Joy act as a reminder to me that it relies on each member of the community doing likewise, in a successive fan of gold light so that the world may be healed, so that God’s Kingdom may come.
Start where you are, and realise you are not meant on your own to resolve all of these massive problems. Do what you can … remember you are not alone, and you do not need to finish the work. It takes time, but we are learning, we are growing, we are becoming the people we want to be. It helps no one if you sacrifice your joy because others are suffering. We people who care must be attractive, must be filled with joy, so that others recognise that caring, that helping and being generous are not a burden, they are a joy. Give the world your love, your service, your healing, but you can also give it your joy. This, too, is a great gift.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with the Dalai Lama and Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy (274)
I want to stand for joy. I want to be a signpost pointing to the Light that is Dark and the Dark that is Light and declare both are aspects of the God who invites me into an encounter with Joy today: a beholding beyond my wildest imagination.
One of my favourite observations that I find myself returning to every Advent was made by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross that great noter of the art of dying, and the five stages of grief. She insists:
People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is light from within.
I want to show my colours in my darkness, but I also want to be alert to seek the tones that are unique to those I might meet today, wherever and whatever their situation. I need the curiosity of being a JoyPilgrim most especially at these moments, so I can pause and pay attention to where God is being revealed in this time, in this place. As A.L.Rowse noted (quoted on Day 5) an encounter with colour left him ‘moon-struck’. It ‘meant’ something that was beyond his articulation, it gave him ‘some sense of the transcendence of things, of the fragility of our hold upon life’. It was a ‘reaching out to perfection’. But an encounter with this transcendent sublime gave him ‘an unease of heart’ `(A.L. Rowse, found in John Pridmore, Playing with Icons: The Spirituality of Recalled Childhood).
I too, recognise that often – underlying the fleeting pure moments of connection with The Great Artist which bring such a sense of rightness, of knowing, of being held, of exhilaration and delight – there is also this sense of unease. An encounter with the Mystery always reminds me of Moses in the wilderness standing before a burning bush and being told to take off his shoes “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3.5 (NRSV)). A visionary encounter with the Holy will always produce trepidation in my heart, and such a ‘Fear of the Lord’ links directly with the morass of my internal fears. But these fears can burn up and shrivel, if I practice what I call ‘mining for gold’. Seeking the places where joy and colour might hide in my past, gives me deep hope for the future. This JoyPilgrim is alert for gold light wherever it might appear: a ’core of concentrated splendour’ as Anne Treener describes it (below).
In his epic poem The River in the Sky, Clive James made an extended study of his own experience of dying from leukaemia, and was surprised to be alive long enough to complete it. It seems to me that he too must have had his own practice of ‘mining for gold’, a lyrical form of observing the resilience of the human spirit, in order to be able to write the following:
After Rembrandt lost his wealth
He could still paint the frothed and combed
Delicacy of light on gold,
The texture of the gathering darkness
Made manifest by the gleam
That it contains and somehow seems to flaunt
While dialling down. An understated festival,
His energy came back to him through memory
As mine does here and now, as if lent power
By the force of its own fading.
Clive James, The River in the Sky (6)
The idea that ‘gold light’ can be ‘an understated festival’ which produces new sources of energy is a tantalising idea for someone like me, whose illness drains so much of my life-force, vitality and energy. Yet all the poets seem to agree, this light-driven energy just awaits me within. Even on the days when my stained-glass luminosity might be very dim, God’s festival of gold remains within, ready to be mined for my healing:
… Though we reject the deepest sources,
though mountain ore has gold for working
and none the will to fetch it out,
rivers will bring it to the day,
reaching there it tranquilly gathers
in filling rock.
Desire him or not,
Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Hours/ The Book of Monkish Life
(trans. Susan Ranson)
Wherever, whenever, there is an encounter with gold light, there is the possibility of an encounter with Grace.
I suppose the sun was trying to come out and the rays were in some way refracted by the mist. We saw a golden light, not brilliant but mellow and suffused, yet with a core of concentrated splendour – a sheaf of gilding. It was the dull but glowing gold of gilded missals … On Dodman Point that day of my childhood, I thought the splendour was God.
Anne Treener, found in John Pridmore, Playing with Icons: The Spirituality of Recalled Childhood
During this year when I have been deliberately seeking to explore the way colour affects my life, I found myself reflecting on the choice of the colour blue as the symbol for creating a new feast day. The modern Church has dubbed today, the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice, as ‘Blue Christmas’: an opportunity to celebrate the presence and worth of all those individuals who find this season particularly difficult, whether through physical or mental illness, through grief, through poverty, through family violence and abuse, or through loneliness and abandonment. By consciously bring all these to mind, the hope is that we will all increase our compassion, understanding and welcome towards these who are often considered outsiders and strangers, shut out from the traditional, commercial or religious rituals that surround this time of the year.
So why ‘blue’? The first resonance which comes to my mind is the phrase ‘feeling blue’, to describe someone’s mental and emotional state. It might imply a mild, but heartfelt, depressed moment, day or season in someone’s life; or an elongated experience of a foggy blankness that nothing seems to touch. There is a vagueness about this blue, a I-don’t-really-know-what’s-wrong-with-me blue, describing someone who is downcast, feeling separated, isolated, dislocated, excluded, from the normal bustle of the everyday world in that moment.
It is often suggested that any emotional turmoil associated with ‘feeling blue’ might be healed with the spiritual and neural muscle memory which regular meditation can give. Such a holistic approach might bring about the antidote of a ‘blue mind’, as Wallace J. Nichols comments:
Blue Mind is a mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment. It is inspired by water and elements associated with water, from the color blue to the words we use to describe the sensations associated with immersion.
In utter contrasts to this, there’s ‘singing the Blues’. This blue streams out of the roots of Negro-Spirituals of the deep South of the U.S.A. This blue is a scream of pain born out of human experiences no being should ever undergo – let alone at the hands of another through enslavement, trafficking, or torture. It is a blue wail of rage and grief that comes from places that I, as a white, educated, British woman, will never comprehend. The fact that there are unnumbered musicians down the centuries who have made beauty from this blue, who have sought to expand upon this blue and explore its multifarious facets, is a source of awe and wonder to me.
Then there’s the ‘blue hour’, the phase of sunset which, for photographers, follows the ‘golden hour’. These are the blues of twilight – whether civil, nautical or astronomical (the degrees to which the sun has descended below the horizon). These are the blues of longing, of distance, of ambiguity and mystery, of descent towards the dark. In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes:
The blue of distance comes with time, with the discovery of melancholy, of loss, the texture of longing, of the complexity of the terrain we traverse, and with the years of travel…Blue the color that represents the spirit, the sky, and water, the immaterial and the remote, so that however tactile and up-close it is, it is always about distance and disembodiment. (39,159)
In a letter from December 1828 the English painter Samuel Palmer wrote this evocative description of the ‘blue hour’:
Creation sometimes pours into the spiritual eye the radiance of Heaven: the green mountains that glimmer in a summer gloaming from the dusky yet bloomy East … [These things] shed a mild, a grateful, an unearthly lustre into the inmost spirits, and seem the interchanging twilight of that peaceful country, where there is no sorrow or night. Every light eternally on the change: yet no light finally extinguished.
That I might see ‘every light eternally on the change: yet no light finally extinguished’ seems to sum up the hope that lies deep under all the ambiguity and lostness of my own blues-song. So this year I am deliberately trying to take note of twilight, charting the shifts in me as another set of daylights fade into nightlights in the sky outside my window. I hope to be deliberate about gathering into me all the hues of blues, and as earth-time leans into darkness, to help my spirit-time lean towards the lights reflected back to my eyes in even the darkest of indigo tones.
Here is a light which the eye inevitably seeks with a deeper feeling of the beautiful – the light of a declining day, and the flakes of scarlet cloud burning like watchfires in the green sky of the horizon; a deeper feeling, I say, not perhaps more acute but having more of spiritual hope and longing … all that is dazzling in colour and perfect in form [is evanescent and shallow] when compared with the still small voice of the level twilight behind purple hills.
Perhaps then, deliberately, mindfully, care-fully, I can embrace all my different blues, all the shades of it that are unique to me. Perhaps then, I maybe able to sit in the blues of my lostness and see them clearly enough to realise there are others in this world, known and unknown to me, in this present moment and in the future, who need what only my Spirit-enlivened colours can give them. Perhaps then, my ‘blue mind’ might be transfigured into an offering of Grace which points straight to the One who invites me to immerse myself into the blue shadowed darknesses of the Light of the World.
(This article was originally written for the Godspace blog as part of their ‘Lean towards the Light’ Advent series)